“Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”
— 1 Timothy 4:12
What started as a project to provide small holiday gifts to the needy has turned into a Christmas Day dinner and gift giveaway at a downtown Oklahoma City church.
The teenager who started it all said she can't believe how her “Stockings for the Homeless” initiative has grown over the years.
Mariah McClellin, 17, said she came up with the idea for the holiday program during a Sunday school lesson at First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City, 131 NW 4. McClellin said she was 12 at the time and remembers reflecting on the Scripture found in First Timothy 4:12, which urges believers to follow Christ's example no matter how young they may be.
McClellin said she told some people about her idea to fill lots of Christmas stockings with small gifts for the homeless, but she repeatedly was told she was too young to take on such a task. The next year, at age 13, she decided she would start the project no matter what anyone else said or did.
“People told me I was too young to do this, but I did it anyway,” McClellin said, grinning.
McClellin said that when she first did it four years ago, she filled Christmas stockings with small toiletry items and handed them out to about 30 homeless people who attended the church's free holiday dinner for the indigent.
Last year, more than 300 needy individuals and families received stockings stuffed with gifts on Christmas Day. They also were treated to a holiday feast, Christmas gifts and a holiday-themed movie.
The project's growth has the young woman busy collecting donations. Donation boxes for everything from nonperishable food items and toiletries to wrapping paper and Beanie Babies are set up at various locations throughout the metro area, in particular, Switzer's Locker Room storage facilities.
Cary McClellin is his daughter's top volunteer.
He said he never doubted she would find a way to turn her idea into reality.
“It was the way she was brought up,” Cary McClellin said. “She's strong-willed, and when she gets her mind made up, she's going to do it.”
Mariah McClellin said she has always felt compassion for the homeless.
She said her father regularly cooked dinner for people who attended the Celebrate Recovery program at First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City on Friday evenings. Cary McClellin said the weekly program and meal eventually evolved into the Friday Night Live event that brings homeless people to the church for an evening of fellowship and dinner.
Mariah McClellin said she wanted to help the indigent that came for the weekly event, hoping to make their holiday season brighter.
“I always got to have a Christmas, and I love Christmas,” she said. “The homeless don't always have a Christmas (celebration) where they feel they're with family.”
Through “Stockings for the Homeless,” needy individuals and families may visit the church on Christmas Day for dinner and a movie. This year's feature film is the 2011 movie “Arthur Christmas.”
McClellin said the gathering is treated like one big family Christmas celebration. For example, children who come to the dinner are encouraged to help decorate the live Christmas tree. McClellin said parents are encouraged to visit a toy room where they can select and wrap gifts for their children. Families also are allowed to shop among the donated nonperishable food items for food to eat after the holiday is over.
Santa Claus is a regular visitor to the gathering, and he will give each child a small gift. McClellin said children may take pictures with Santa, and the photos will be given to their families as a holiday memento.
The McClellins said the program is only successful through the generosity of the community and numerous volunteers.
Cary McClellin said businesses including Whole Foods, Cupcake Lounge and Sam's Club have been gracious donors. Mariah McClellin said the businesses that agree to place donation boxes in their establishments also are key.
She said she also has been visiting several local churches to discuss ways the congregations can come alongside First United Methodist to make the program a blessing for those in need.
The McClellins said they and other volunteers will be busy preparing for the program now that Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is just weeks away.
“I stress. She stresses, but it all comes together,” Cary McClellin said, smiling.
“It's a great project.”